The Not So Silent, Silent Retreat

“Are you scared?” my friend asked expectantly. It was an honest question, and one I’d hear several times over before I headed off on my first silent retreat.

I was in the process of finishing up the requirements to become a certified teacher of mindful self-compassion. In the rush to get it all done, I had not considered how I felt about the retreat, other than it was one more thing I needed to tick off my list for certification. I was not scared. I did realize that embarking on a week-long silent retreat was largely out of the ordinary for most people, and apparently a bit intimidating, but I felt ready.

Over the years leading up to the retreat I had earnestly pursued my own internal healing. I had made it through a deep depression and pulled myself out of alcohol dependence, largely due to the study and implementation of self-compassion.

I immersed myself in this new way of relating to myself; a kinder, gentler way. I honed my inner voice to be kind and supportive. The practice of mindfulness and self-awareness guided me to a greater understanding of how I had been relating to myself and why it was toxic and harmful, and needed to change.

Over the course of several years, I created a system and set of tools for creating a compassionate inner voice, based on the core emotional needs that we, as humans, all have. I even founded a company called InnerAlly that was created to help people use these tools for themselves.

So, I felt ready. I was ready for this silent retreat.

If you have never been, silent retreats are not particularly focused on making you comfortable. But any smart retreat center knows that you have to have a fantastic vegetarian cook and a large assortment of teas. This retreat center did not disappoint. My room was spartan and shared, my bed was hard, and the morning meditations came very early.

I felt a sense of relief to find that the day was scheduled with activities and breaks between mediations, and there was a good assortment of types of sessions, full silence, guided, walking, individual, group, and so on.

My body and mind relaxed into the comfort that I was going to be here for a while, and I had a luxurious amount of time to get my monkey-mind to calm down. It took a day or two, but it did calm down, and I got into the rhythm of the silence.

Something happened at the end of day three. My luxurious space for silence turned into a cacophony of judgmental voices in my head.

But, hello day three! Something happened at the end of day three. My luxurious space for silence turned into a cacophony of judgmental voices in my head. I was honestly confused. How could this happen? I’d been working on my relationship with myself and creating a compassionate inner voice. I had thoroughly analyzed, befriended, and nurtured it into a kind and supportive voice.

After a few tumultuous meditations, I realized, these were actually not MY voices. These voices were other people, particularly the ones who I felt were judging me.

After a few tumultuous meditations, I realized, these were actually not MY voices. These voices were other people, particularly the ones who I felt were judging me.I was honestly shocked at how loud, opinionated, and judgmental they were. Somehow, I had managed to not really recognize these voices as my own, so they never went through the InnerAlly process to meet them with compassion and shift them to be more kind and supportive.

It was like I had a blinders on to these voices until that magical (albeit loud) third day of meditation. Because the truth is…. These outside people that I perceive to be judging me, they are NOT ACTUALLY IN MY HEAD. I’ve allowed them to become part of my inner narrative at some point, and that means that I can also disallow them.

I’ve heard some people refer to this phenomenon as having a “committee” where different voices have different thoughts and opinions on things. But I’d always equated this with taking different perspective on problems. But in fact, I could now see that the committee could also be conceived of as these different external people that I’ve internalized as a part of my narrative.

The awareness was a bit shocking because I knew I had my work cut out for me. But knowledge is power and soon enough I set to work. I documented each of these cruel and discouraging voices and begun the process of figuring out how to temper them.

One thing I did was to take that person in my head and just pick them up and put them on a shelf off to the side. It did not eliminate the voice, but it took it out of the center focus, and eventually the voice would just fade as I gave it no attention.

Another thing I did was to tap into my higher compassionate self and have a conversation with the judgmental voice. It might sound like: “I’m sorry you feel that way. You must be feeling scared to be so judgmental. Although I appreciate you trying to take care of me, speaking like that is not the best way to communicate your fears. Why don’t you trust me to take care of it?”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. You must be feeling scared to be so judgmental.”

With these tools, the voices began to settle down into a calm silence.  The silent retreat was a deep and profound learning experience for me, and it helped be to further craft my inner narrative to be my own ally and support system.

I’m very curious to find out what the silence will teach me on my next retreat.

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